How to order coffee in Spain

IMG_20150802_131603

Ordering coffee in Spain can seem like a bit of a challenge. But if you know a few key phrases and names for different sorts of coffee, you’ll do just fine.

Spaniards in general are less picky about the time of day for their coffee than Italians. I’ve read that after breakfast, Italians never order cappuccinos and will think you are weird and foreign if you do so.  I’m pretty sure that the last time I was in Rome, I order a mid-afternoon cappuccino. Oh well.

Anyways, back to Spanish coffee.

Most Common Coffee Orders in Spain

There are many different ways to order coffee in Spain, but three basic, common coffee orders. There are many variations of these basics, but these three basic orders should get you everything you need.

Café con lechecoffee with a substantial amount of milk, usually half to a third milk

Café solo — only coffee, like an espresso

Café cortadocoffee with a little bit of frothy milk

Café cortados and café solos are served in small, espresso-style cups while a café con leche is usually a bit bigger and, in many bars, is served in a glass. You won’t find a big cup of coffee unless you go to an American style coffee chain, like Starbucks, which I would definitely avoid.

Spanish coffee is quite strong and sometimes a bit bitter. Spaniards are not known for their coffee the way the Italians are, but coffee drinking is still a ritual and a regular part of life. Almost any bar will be able to make you a coffee. Bakeries tend to have good coffee as they are used to customers having a morning coffee with their pastry.

So what type of coffee should you order when? The general rule is that a café solo or café cortado is usually for after a meal. Café con leche is the common breakfast coffee or a common late afternoon get together drink.

While Spaniards are generally more flexible in the coffee area than their Mediterranean counterparts, they do have a one guideline — they never order a café con leche after meal. It’s too heavy with all the milk and isn’t good for digestion, or that’s the belief. After a meal, Spaniards typically have either a cafe solo or a café cortado.

If you want a café con leche after a meal, go right ahead and order one! Ignore any strange stares you might get.

One of my favorite things to do in Spain is enjoy a morning café con leche at a local bar while I people watch. Since any type of coffee will run you between 1 and 2 euros, it’s a habit I can easily afford. No one will ever try to run you out of a bar for sitting too long, even after you finish your coffee, so sit back, or stand at the bar, and enjoy!

 

 

 

My Camino experience

The Camino de Santiago

If you’re interested in traveling to Spain and have done some research or follow travel writing, you’re probably heard about the Camino de Santiago. The Camino is a medieval pilgrimage route, actually more accurately routes since there is more than one, that lead to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Northwest Spain. Santiago has tremendous religious significance and is believed to be the burial place of Santiago, or St. James.

I wrote a general overview of the what exactly the Camino is here.

My Camino Experience in 2007

My father, sister, and I biked the Camino de Santiago in the summer of 2007. We chose the Camino Frances that goes across the North of Spain, from East to West. We started in Roncesvalles, the first town in Spain next to the Spain-France border, and we biked all the way to Santiago. It took us two weeks and we timed our camino so that we entered Santiago on July 26, el día de Santiago, or the day of St. James.

On our way to Santiago, we passed through the major Camino cities — Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, and León. We were in Pamplona for a few hours the morning of an encierro, or a running with the  bulls, during their yearly fiestas. We saw the grape vines in the vineyards of La Rioja, the dueling cathedrals in Burgos and León, biked through the wide open plains of the Meseta and up the steepest mountain pass on our way to O Ceibreiro in Galicia.

We had certain advantages that come from knowing Spain inside and out and from having a home base in the city of  León. In terms of culture, food, and language, we were all set. But, traveling the camino is quite different from traveling through Spain, or even from knowing the country well.

We had to do a lot of research and think about certain logistics, like how to make sure you time yourself so that you’re in a town for the night, hopefully the town you plan to sleep in, but at least a town.

Camino Logistics

We brought our bikes over from the US. We considered buying bikes in Spain to avoid transporting them and I am so glad we did not do this. I would definitely recommend bringing your bike and any equipment you might need with you. We were all able to ride our bikes beforehand, to “train” on them.  It’s not about speed or building up to riding a certain amount, although you will be riding a lot if you do the camino by bike or walking a lot if you walk it, and getting yourself used to that sort of physical experience is a good idea.

If you are walking, make sure you break in your hiking boots very well before starting the camino. You should also bring an additional pair of walking shoes, like old sneakers that you can wear if you need a break from your boots.

The most important thing is to get accustomed to your bike, to ride a good amount, to figure out the best fit, and to know how the bike works. If you’re carrying your belongings, it’s important to practice with weight on your bike. I would put water bottles in my panniers and go out on rides to get used to what my bike would feel like. Trust me, riding a bike that is weighed down, even if you pack lightly, takes some getting used to.

We each asked biked shops to break down our bikes and put them in a large, sturdy cardboard box. It cost us each around $80 to check these boxes. I would recommend checking this price again as I’m sure it’s gone up since 2007. Bike shops should be familiar with the idea of breaking down a bike to travel with. People who travel with bikes frequently either to compete or for travel have hard, plastic bike cases. I do not think this is at all necessary. All three bikes made the trip safely and without problems.

We carried all of our clothes and everything we needed on our bikes in paniers. In addition to clothes, we each had limited toiletries, a sleeping pad, and a fleece sleeping bag. We did not need the sleeping pad at all and I’m not sure why we each carried one. The fleece sleeping bag came in handy during the second half of the trip when the weather was much colder.

In terms of clothes, we each packed two pairs of padded bike shorts, a few moisture-wicking tees, a rain jacket, undergarments, socks, and one or two casual outfits. I think I brought a dress in case we ever went out to a nicer dinner or something like, which was was completely unnecessary. You will spend most of your time actually doing the camino, biking or walking. When you stop in towns to have a coffee or a meal, everyone will understand that you’re a peregrino, or a pilgrim, and will expect you to be dressed as such. That means you don’t need to feel badly about sitting down to eat with hiking boots on or in bike shorts. If you’re planning to go to a very fancy restaurant during your camino trek, then it makes sense to bring a nicer outfit. Otherwise, one casual non-athletic clothes outfit is fine.

Reflections on the Camino  — What I would do the same and differently

For the most part, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I loved biking the camino and I’m glad that was our decision. I’m glad we started in Roncesvalles and traveled all the way across Spain, East to West, to Santiago. We were able to see so much and it was an incredible experience.

We timed things well and arrived in Santiago on July 26th, the day we had planned to arrive. Even though it was quite hot at the beginning as we traveled through La Rioja and Castilla y León and it was colder at the end in the mountains of Galicia, I think it was a great time of year to do the camino and I wouldn’t change that. If I were to do the camino again, I might choose early fall to enjoy a different season.

I think we had a realistic idea of how much we could do every day and it worked out well. On our longest day, we did 80 kilometers. The terrain was very flat and relatively easy. In the mountains, we did less each day. There are plenty of books that break down different typical stages and how much you might be able to do in a day during different parts of the camino. I think it is important to be realistic and to plan conservatively. Make sure you build in plenty of time every day for rest. After lunch around 2:00 or 3:00, you’re probably not going to want to do much more walking or biking.

One thing I wish we had done differently and that I would advise everyone to do is to pack for colder weather, no matter the time of year. Even though we did the Camino in July which most people associate with hot weather in Spain, the second half of our trek was quite cold. From where we started in Roncesvalles to León, when we were on the Spanish Meseta, or the central plain, the terrain was mostly flat and open and it was very hot. We need shorts, tee-shirts, good sunglasses and hats,  and lots of sunblock.

Once we passed León and left the Meseta, we were in the mountainous region of Galicia and the weather was much cooler. I remember biking down from the mountains into Villafranca del Bierzo and not being able to feel my hands, and wishing that I had long pants instead of only bike shorts and a pair of gloves.

No matter how well you plan, there will always be something unexpected. Be prepared to improvise! If you need to buy a warmer layer, there are plenty of cities and stores in which to do so. If you have bad blisters, many doctors in cities along the camino are used to seeing peregrinos for all sorts of blister and walking and biking related issues.

Keep a flexible mindset and enjoy! Whatever happens, it will be an incredible experience!

 

 

 

El Camino de Santiago

What is the Camino de Santiago?

If you’ve been doing research on travel to Spain or just reading about Spain in general, you might have heard of the Camino de Santiago and wondered, what’s that? Santiago is St. James and a camino is a path or a walkway, so translated, el Camino de Santiago means the way of St. James or the path of St. James.

St. James is believed to be burried in the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, a city in the northwestern corner of Spain, in the region of Galicia. Inside the cathedral, one column has the imprint of a hand that, legend has is, was originally made by St. James. Throughout the middle ages, people traveled from all across Europe and Northern Africa to Santiago de Compostela to the burial site of St. James, making the pilgrimage to Compostela  one of the most important Christian piligrimages of the middle ages, along with the pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem.

Wealthy pilgrims stayed in what were essentially hotels for those making pilgrimages.  The Hostal San Marcos in Leon is a good example of one of these buildings. Today it is a Parador, one of several historic buildings all over Spain  that have been converted into luxury hotels and run through a private-public partnership as a way to preserve and use these beautiful and historic buildings.

Non-wealthy pilgrims would camp on the side of the road. They suffered greatly during these pilgrimages, from hunger and from sickness, but only wealth pilgrims were assured food and the medical care. Most people who make the journey to Santiago were not wealthy. That so many made this arduous journey is a testament to the importance of Santiago de Compostela.

Why do people do the Camino today? Is it only for religious people? 

Over the past three or so decades, many people, mostly from Spain and other European countries, rediscovered the Camino and started walking or biking different routes to get to Santiago. People who were outdoor enthusiasts and liked hiking or biking realized it was a great way to do something they loved while also seeing beautiful countryside, cities and towns that one might otherwise not see.  Within the past decade or so, the Camino’s popularity has truly exploded, with many North Americans joining in.

There are many reasons why people today do the Camino and many people, I would say the vast majority, do not do it for religious reasons.  In the middle ages, people endured difficult, uncomfortable pilgrimages for religious reasons. Today, there are so many ways to do the Camino, but even the most austere way is much more comfortable, not to mention safer and more hygenic, than anything medeival pilgrims would have encountered.

There really is something special and unique about doing the Camino. My dad, sister, and I biked the Camino in 2007 and even though we all know Spain incredibly well (two of us are Spanish nationals), biking the Camino was in many ways an indescribable experience that let showed us remote roads, villages, tiny towns of only a few abuelitos. We got to know fellow pilgrims, chat with people from all over Europe, and see beautiful countryside by bike.

There is not one only Camino — Different Camino routes

There is more than one Camino de Santiago; in fact there are many! Pilgrims traveled from all over Europe and Northern Africa to Santiago and the multiple Caminos reflect this.

There is the classic Camino Frances, or French Way, that crosses Spain from East to West. This is the most popular route. Many people start this route at Roncesvalles, which is the first town on the Camino del Norte in Spain, just next to the French border. Some people start just over the border in France.

There is also the Ruta del Norte that goes along the northern coast of Spain. This route is spectacularly beautiful and allows walkers to enjoy the coast, maybe spend afternoons discovering different beaches.

The Ruta de la Plata comes up from the south, from Sevilla specifically.  The Ruta Portugues starts in Lisbon and makes it way up through Portugal and to Santiago de Compostela.

People start the Camino at points all over Europe. When we did the Camino, we met a family from Denmark who were also biking the Camino. The youngest of the three children was so little that she didn’t have her own bike; she was rode a trailer attached to the back of her dad’s bike. They started biking in Denmark and traveled all the way to Santiago.

Trip basics

There are a number of decisions to make regarding your Camino trip. There are three big questions to decided right away. The rest of your planning will be based around your decisions on the following —

  1. Method — walk or bike;
  2. Route — which Camino will you do;
  3. Starting point — will you do the entire Camino route, or will you do a smaller piece.

The most basic question you need to answer is how you are going to transport yourself along the Camino. Are you going to walk or bike?

You need to decide which Camino route you will do and where you will start. For instance, if you’re doing the Camino Frances, are you going to do the entire route in Spain starting in Roncesvalles or are you going to start somewhere else along the way?

Once you’ve made these three decisions, you can move onto additional logistics. You will need to decide what type of accommodation you want. Are you going to stay in the pilgrim hostels, called albergues, or do you want to stay in hotels? How long are you planning to walk or bike each day? This is important in terms of the time you need to allot to get from one town to the next.  Are you going to carry all of your belongings or is someone going to drive a support car? Are you going to take any rest days? If so, where? What are the sites you most want to see? Are they any restaurants you want to eat in along the way?

Planning for the Camino

This is a general overview. I write more about planning for the Camino here.

It is important to research thoroughly and plan for your Camino adventure. I would say it’s actually more important than for the average trip because you need to time your trip so that you’re able to spend each night in a pre-planned city or town, unless you’re bringing camping equipment and are planning to camp wherever you can (I would not recommend this approach).

Weather is an important consideration. We did the Camino in early to mid June, a time that most everyone associates with hot weather in Spain. The first half or so of our trip, from Roncesvalles through León, was quite hot, but once we past León and were off the Meseta, or the central plain of Spain, and in the mountains of Galicia, the weather was much colder. In fact, we were freezing and completely unprepared clothing-wise.

Packing light is very important for the Camino as you’re likely carrying all of your belongings, but making sure you have the adequate clothing is important. No matter the time of year, you should be prepared for rain and have changes in temperature. A light weigh rain jacket, moisture-wicking layers including a least one top layer that is a bit warmer, and gloves are must pack items. For those walking, sturdy high quality and well fitted hiking boots are an absolute must as well as as second pair of lighter, yet still comfortable walking shoes like sneakers.

In thinking about where to start the Camino and which route to travel, you should consider if you want to build a bigger Spain trip around your Camino adventure and what parts of Spain you like to see. Is it beaches on the north coast, Castilian cities, or do you want to jet off to another part of Spain after finishing the camino.

I am happy to give advice or help you plan your Camino adventure!

IMG_20150731_133228

Tips for Driving in Spain

Driving in Spain, or any foreign country really, may seem a bit daunting, but with the right tips and preparation, driving in Spain is a great way to see certain parts of the country.

In general, driving is a great way to move around specific and contained regions of Spain. For instance, if you want to spend time in La Rioja visiting vineyards, to see the north coast in the Basque country,  or to weave your way through olive groves and white-washed villages in the south, driving is a fabulous way to do this.

You have the freedom and flexibility to move at your own pace. You can stop when you want to and see what you want to see. If you discover an unexpected town and want to you change your itinerary to spend more time there, you’re not constrained by bus and train schedules.

Driving is really the only way to see smaller towns and more rural parts of the country, both inland and on the coasts. Local buses run fairly extensive routes in most places and it is possible to use these buses to get to some off-the-beaten path places. Buses simply do not go many places that you might want to see and, without renting a car, taking a taxi would be the only option.

While Spaniards tend to drive fast on highways, they are predictable drivers and follow traffic rules well. The highways are quite modern and well marked.  Driving in cities (I don’t recommend driving in big cities) is similarly predictable.

Here are my dos and don’ts for driving in Spain —

Dos

Do make sure you are always in the right-hand lane when driving on the highway, unless you are passing another vehicle. This goes for divided highways with multiple lanes. You should never just drive along in the left-hand lane.

Do make sure to always respect the speed limit. This means making sure you’re not going much under the speed limit too.

Do make sure to pay extra close attention to the speed limit if you are on a smaller road that goes through small towns. In many areas, it is common to have the speed limit drop from above 100 kilometers per hour to 90 to 60 to 40 very quickly while you approach a small town. Sometimes these “towns” might be a few houses on either side of the road. Make sure you slow down adequately and respect these limits. They tend to be strictly enforced.

Do make sure you always, always stop for pedestrians in a cross walk. Cars always stop at the edge of the crosswalk, so it sometimes looks they they’re not stopping, but they always do and pedestrians count on this.

Do make sure you always signal. This goes for city and highway driving.

Do make sure that you always check to see if anyone is coming up behind you before passing a car on a divided highways. Cars can come up very quickly and unexpectedly at times, so they is very important.

Do be honest about your ability to drive a stick shift. If you’re not an experienced stick shift driver, driving in a different country on unfamiliar roads is not the best way to practice. It’s better to book ahead and request an automatic transmission.

Do make sure you have insurance coverage for your rental car, either through you credit card or through the rental car company itself.

Don’ts

Don’t drive in big cities like Madrid or Barcelona. You should absolutely avoid this.  Smaller cities are much more manageable, though you still may want to avoid the city center.

Don’t use driving as your main mode of transportation between cities in different parts of Spain, say for instance, to get from Madrid to Sevilla or Madrid to Barcelona. It’s much more efficient to take the train unless, of course, you have lots of time and you want to spend it driving long distances between cities.

Don’t turn right on red. This is not legal in Spain. You must wait for the green.

Don’t drink at all and drive, not even one small beer or glass of wine. Spain has much stricter alcohol limits when it comes to driving and they’re rigidly enforced.

 

Here are some additional tips for things to consider when renting a car abroad.

Travel Safety in Spain

san-sebastian-331023_1920
La Concha beach, right in the center of San Sebastian

Spain is an incredibly safe country. Gun violence is existent and random violent crimes are incredibly infrequent. Travel by any means, bus, train, car, or plane is all very safe.  The biggest crime concern in Spain for travelers is petty crime. In fact, this is probably the biggest safety/crime concern for Spaniards that live in big cities. For Spaniards that live in smaller cities or rural areas, my guess is the biggest “crime” concern is who left the bar without paying or what is the latest inane potentially legally questionable thing some politician has done. This may actually apply to all Spaniards.

Pickpockets in Spain, and in many European countries, are very talented at getting into your belongings — purses, pockets, bags —  and taking what they want in incredibly discreet ways.

Once while I was living in Madrid, I was on the metro when two American girls were robbed of their camera. The robber managed to grab it just before the train came to a stop and then jumped off once the doors opened and was gone. The girls didn’t see this coming and were startled and, of course, quite upset. It is common for pickpockets to target tourists and to be so discreet that you don’t notice anything is wrong until it’s too late.

Here are a few things you can do to protect yourself:

For women carrying purses, I recommend a shoulder bag with a zipper that should be kept zipped shut. In crowded areas like markets and the metro in big cities, it’s important to make sure the actual zipper is in the front. I’ve heard cases of pickpockets going into the back of a shoulder bag by unzipping it a tad and then stealing a wallet, phone, etc. With the zipper in front, it is very unlikely that this happens.

For evening outings or if you’re tired of carrying a shoulder bag, a cross body bag is fine under two conditions — it must have a secure closing, like a zipper, or a strap that buckles the bag closed and it should be worn so that it hangs in front. A clutch that you carry in your hand is fine for an evening at the theater or a nice dinner as long as you’re not like me, someone who puts a clutch down and then forgets about it.

For men, do not carry your wallet or a cell phone in your back pocket. It is very easy for a pickpocket to get in there without you realizing it. Front pockets are much more secure. If it’s jacket weather and you can put your wallet in an inside coat pocket, that’s even better. Just be sure that you don’t put the jacket down in a bar or a coat check and leave you wallet in the pocket accidentally.

What about those travel wallets that hang under your clothes you may ask? Personally, I find them to be a bit ridiculous and quite uncomfortable. I do not think they are at all necessary either.

Pickpockets generally look for easy targets, meaning people who are clearly tourists and distracted, maybe a bit lost, or talking loudly among themselves and tuned out from their surroundings. They are not looking to get into arguments or any sort of confrontation. I think it’s important when traveling to be in tuned with your surroundings for a number or reasons.

Of course, you’re going to get lost and distracted, or talk loudly and animatedly with your travel companions about something new and amazing you’ve seen. This is one of the best parts of traveling! Try to minimize this sort of distraction when you’re traveling on the metro or in a packed market type area.

Don’t draw attention to yourself by taking your wallet out and counting money or making it clear that you are carrying lots of cash. If you need to check to see how much money you have and if you need to make another ATM stop soon, wait until you’re in a restaurant for a meal, or step into a bar to grab a quick coffee or drink. This is a perfectly appropriate place to do this discreetly.

With these tips and being generally aware of your surroundings, you should be able to minimize any unfortunate and unpleasant sort of event of this nature.

 

Women travelers in Spain

Patio de Cordoba

Travel is one of the best things anyone can invest in. Going to new places, learning new things, meeting new people, and pushing your boundaries can only help you grow. I think everyone would be well-advised to spend more on travel and experiences than on material items.

Traveling solo in general can be exhilarating, challenging, a little scary and unsettling, and wonderful all at once. Traveling solo forces you to come face-to-face with yourself. You are alone with your thoughts, your wants, your fears, and limitations. If you don’t do something you want to or you hold yourself back, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Traveling solo as a woman can add a new dimension or concern or precaution.

I have traveled solo as a woman myself and have loved every experience. In my opinion, not having to compromise with another person, going exactly where you want to go and when, seeing what you want, eating what you want and when is the height of indulgence and enjoyment. I have enjoyed delightful meals, midday naps in parks, and people watching while I leisurely stroll.

But, I have always been a bit more cautious and aware while traveling alone.

In Budapest, where I spent a few days alone, I had a marvelous time, but never stayed out late or went to bars alone. Part of this is pure personality; I’d rather spend all day out and about and walk miles to see a city and exhaust myself and call it an early night that see less during the day and take in the night scene. In a country where I didn’t speak the language, though many Hungarians in Budapest speak English, I didn’t feel very comfortable going out to bars by myself. But again, this was not a big deal to me as my preference was to walk around all day, exhaust myself, eat delicious food, and go back to my hostel and take a hot shower and proceed to sleep ten hours.

There is a big difference between pushing your boundaries and doing something to challenge yourself, say eating a meal alone or navigating a new city on your own, and feeling fundamentally safe.

Women travelers and solo women travelers should feel safe and comfortable traveling around Spain. It is, overall, an exceedingly safe country; I always feel safer walking around in Spanish cities than I do in the US.  When I lived in Madrid, I walked home with female friends or alone at 2 or 3 in the morning, or later, and always felt safe. People tend to stay out later and urban areas generally feel much less deserted. Violent crime is much lower and gun violence is not a thing.

The biggest concern for travelers, male and female alike, is pick-pockets. One should always be  very careful with their belongings. For women carrying a bag, I recommend a zippered shoulder bag with the zipper in front. I’ve heard of women being robbed on the metro when someone unzips their back from the back without them noticing and takes out their wallet or phone.

For evening outings or if you don’t feel like schlepping a large handbag around, a cross body bag works if it has a secure closing like a zipper, or a snap with a strap over it, worn in front of you.  I recommend that when you’re on public transportation, like the metro, or in a crowded place that is rather touristy, like the Rastro market in Madrid, or Las Ramblas in Barcelona, that you keep a hand over it.

An important thing to note — pick-pocketing and these sorts of robberies are non-violent crimes in Spain, not that that makes them any less unsettling. They goal of the pickpocket is to get your valuables without you noticing and to have no confrontation.

I will add an important caveat regarding safety for female travelers — the one thing I would be cautious about are large festivals and parties, like the running of the bulls in Pamplona, La Tomatina, the tomato smushing festival in the region of Valencia, or Carnival in Cadiz. For American audiences, I think the most understandable comparison would be to very large, drunken fraternity parties.

If you’re a female solo traveler and this concerns you and you absolutely have to experience one of Spain’s famous multiple day fiestas, it’s worth nothing that I’ve never heard of harassment or assault issues in relation to the massive Gay Pride parade and celebration in Madrid. This giant several day long party happens every June in Madrid and is a good way to live the crazy Spanish fiesta.

I do not think this is the way it should be, obviously, and women should not have to seek out and heed advice to feel safe. However, until that changes, I feel that it is my responsibility to present the information I would want to know myself.

It is perfectly possible to travel solo and as a woman and enjoy Spain’s famous nightlife. Attending the large, crazy, famous festivals is not a necessity at all and, frankly, I don’t think they’re a good way to see Spain or get to know the country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s in a name: Las Tres Marias

You might be wondering why this blog and travel consultancy is called Las Tres Marias. You might think, oh, well I know there are a lot of women named Maria in Spain, so it must just be that.

You are right that there are many Marias in Spain. More on that later.

This company is named for three very specific Marias — Maria del Carmen, Maria Luisa, Maria Natividad — my mother, my aunt, and my great-grandmother, my maternal grandfather’s mother.

Maria, or Mary, was a very common name under the Franco dictatorship. Franco’s regime was very closely associated with the Catholic Church in more than just its traditional views of the family, gender roles, and general politics; church officials held high ranking positions within the regime.

According to my mother, the priest would not allow babies in her village to be baptized unless they were named Maria. And no one at the time would just forego a baptism. That was basically announcing that you wanted to be shunned by society.

There are a plethora of Marias, each one with it’s own nick-name —

Maria del Mar, or Mar;

Maria de Soledad, or Marisol;

Maria Victoria, or Marivi;

Maria Jesus;

Maria Loreto, or Loreto;

Maria Luisa, or Luisa or Marisa;

Maria del Carmen; Carmen or Mari

Maria Jose;

Maria de los Angeles;

Maria Dolores, Lola;

Maria del Pilar, or Pilar;

Maria Teresa, or Maite;

And on and on.

You get the idea, lots and lots of Marias.

Maria is not as common of a name now for baby girls although it’s far from uncommon. The princesses of Spain are named Sofia and Leonor and, while Maria names are still common, these types of non-Maria names are quite popular now too. Many people who name their daughters Maria something do so because it’s a family name or because they like the name; very few do so for religious reasons.

Back to these particular Marias.

These three Marias are especially strong, wily, and independent. They also underscore the importance of family. Women play a special role in Spanish society. Just watch any of Pedro Almodovar’s films to see how women are always the main characters, the deciders, the do-ers.

In founding Las Tres Marias Spain: Experience Spain like a local, I hope to do three things —

  1. Help you have the experience of a local in Spain;
  2. Promote Spanish companies, food producers, and products that are not sufficiently recognized for their excellence;
  3. Help people understand the unique and fascinating history of Spain, want to ask questions and learn more.

My grandmother who is one of my favorite and most admired people is named Albertina. Las Tres Marias and an Albertina wasn’t going to work for me so, for now, she’s honored through her daughters, Maria del Carmen and Maria Luisa.

And for those wondering, my mom goes by Maria in the US and Mari or Maricarmen in Spain, while my aunt goes by Luisa and I carry that Luisa on in my name as Victoria Luisa.

 

 

When is the best time to visit Spain?

There is really no bad time to visit Spain. It just depends on what you want to see and where you want to go and your tolerance for certain things.

Spain can be really hot in the summer but, unlike the idea that most people have, the whole country is not hot and sunny all the time. Quite the opposite actually, especially in certain regions. The north coast — Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Pais Vasco — is beautiful and home to some of my absolute favorite cities and beaches in the world,  and can be chilly and rainy during the summer. If you want guaranteed sun and will be upset with clouds or rain, than summer in the north may not be for you.

The South of Spain can get extremely hot in the summer. It frequently gets above 40 degrees Celsius, or over 100 F, in cities across Andalucia, the southern region of Spain, during the summer. Although it’s dry heat, it can be stifling. Many homes, businesses, and restaurants don’t have air conditioning. Because of this, I would not recommend visiting the non-coastal cities in the South of Spain during the summer, unless it’s part of a longer beach-focused vacation that includes a few days touring nearby cities.

The Mediterranean cost of Spain is stunning, particularly the northern part in Cataluna. With the Mediterranean can come humidity, especially around Valencia and Alicante.

Spain can be cold in the winter, something that may come as a shock to some. In the regions north of Madrid, it can get quite cold. Mountain ranges are frequently filled with snow-covered peaks. Even the Sierra Nevada, visible from the southern city of Granada, has snow-capped peaks well into spring. Although if you’re traveling you probably won’t be staying in a home (unless you’re in an Airbnb), but many homes in the South of Spain don’t have central heat. Families rely on space heaters and braseros, or a table with a heater underneath and a big blanket skirt, to keep warm.

You may want to avoid Sevilla during the Feria de Abril, unless you are traveling to Sevilla with the intention to attend the Feria. If you don’t want to attend this week long festival event, then this is not a great time to visit the city as it will be packed, many restaurants and bars will have shortened hours, or will be closed all together. If the Feria is an experience you want to live, then, by all means, go during that week!

Holy week, or the week before Easter is another time to consider carefully. Many cities have processions in the days leading up to Easter. They can be fascinating to watch and an interesting window into the culture in certain ways, but especially smaller cities tend to shut down in the days leading up to Easter.

All of this is to say that, like any country, there are always weather-related or timing issues to consider when planning a trip. If you absolutely want sunny beach days, certain times of year and certain parts of the Spanish coast are best. If you want to spend substantial time in southern cities but don’t like intense heat, spring and fall are probably the best bets for you. If you want to either avoid or attend popular tourist events, that’s something else to consider.

There is no perfect time to travel. All times and seasons of years have their pluses and their minuses. The goals of your trip can be accomplished with good planning.

And, like most things that relate to travel, it’s always best to come prepared with layers, comfy shoes, and a positive and flexible attitude.

What’s up with the low English level in Spain?

francisco-moreno-70894-unsplash (1)
Who needs English with the beautiful Pueblos Blancos in Andalucia?!

Visitors to Spain may notice and may be surprised by the generally low level of English spoken throughout the country.

Once, while living in Madrid, I was at the bus station buying tickets to go to Granada. The fellow before me in line, who German or Northern European, tried to buy his tickets in English once it was his turn. The woman behind the counter only spoke Spanish. He seemed shocked, outraged, and perhaps a bit panicked to discover that not a single counter agent spoke English. He spoke no Spanish. I stepped up and asked if he needed and translator; he looked relieved and said yes.

In Germany, Austria, and Nordic countries like Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, it’s common that everyone speaks English. You can go up to a police officer, ticket agent, museum employee, random person on the street, and the chances are good that they will be able to answer you question or give you directions in English without skipping a beat.

Why is it different in Spain? First, I think it’s important to note that it’s not just Spain that has a lower level of English acquisition. Italy and France also have notoriously low levels of English. It makes sense that the more economically prosperous countries in Northern Europe and Scandinavia have higher levels of English compared to their less wealthy Southern Mediterranean counterparts like Spain, Italy, Greece and France.

Students in countries like Denmark and Norway attend public schools that are taught in English, giving them a huge leg up over others. How this evolved and the politics and financing involved is another story.

There are some important differences between Spain and the rest of Europe that relate to its place in the world of English speaking. Spain was a dictatorship for over 40 years, from 1939 to 1975, when the dictator Franco died. During his rule, Franco did not allow languages other than Castellano, or Castilian Spanish, to be spoken publicly. This included the other official languages of Spain — Galician, Basque, and Catalan. Only films in Spanish were permitted and many films, even in Spanish, were simply not allowed because of censorship rules.

During these 40 years, Spain was mostly withdrawn from the international community. Spain did not join the European Economic Community until 1986, after applying to join in 1977, two years after the death of Franco. There was an attempted military coup d’etat in 1981, which I think drives home the newness of Spain’s democracy and current place in the world.

Spain’s 40 plus year dictatorship and isolation are major reasons why the country lags behind other European nations in English.

The good news it that for the past 10 to 15 years, there has been a major push to teach English and just about everyone understands how important it is to speak it. Bilingual public schools are common in many areas of the country and major universities have bilingual degree programs.

There are several programs that brings native English speakers to work as English Language Teaching Assistants is booming. While giving the participants the chance to live and work in Spain and improve their Spanish, it exposes Spanish students to native English speakers and piques their curiosity in American or British culture.

Parents enroll kids as young as a few years in bilingual pre-schools and in activity-based English classes.

There is a noticeable difference in the level of English from a decade or two ago and the commitment to improve the English level of Spaniards is clear.

In your travels around Spain, you will likely encounter people who don’t speak English, especially if you get off the beaten track, as you should! Don’t let this discourage you. There are plenty of ways to overcome a communication barrier and to enjoy your travels.

 

The best bar in the world

It’s in Leon, Spain, a city of 120,000 give or take in the region of Castilla y Leon. It’s called Bar Madrid.

What makes this bar so great? El Mundo named it the greatest bar in Spain and that is a high compliment for a country that has the greatest number of bars to people per capita.

Seriously.

Spain takes bars very seriously. They are so much more than just bars, or at least the way much of the rest of the world thinks about bars.

As the great singer-songwriter Joaquin Sabina once said:

“Sólo en Antón Martín hay más bares que en toda Noruega,”

or

“Only in Antón Martín (a metro stop and neighborhood in Madrid), there are more bars than in all of Norway.”

This is actually a true statement; there is research to back it up. Norway seems great, just not a winner in the bar department apparently.

So, why is Bar Madrid in Leon the best bar in the world?

It is on a side street, off of the pedestrian thorough-fair Calle Ancha that leads up to the Catedral de Leon. The doors and windows are usually open and people frequently spill out into the street. It is far from the only bar on this small street, as is generally the case in Spain, yet you can sense the energy and hear the chatter as you approach.

The tapas are excellent. You can usually choose between arroz, or a small portion of paella style rice, salmorejo, and a few other options, sopa de ajo, or patatas. The best salmorejo (a cold soup made from tomatoes and similar to gazpacho, only thicker, that is typical of Andalucia) that I’ve ever had is from Bar Madrid.

IMG_20150729_141236.jpg
Salmorejo and cañas at Bar Madrid

Bar Madrid is frequently packed, especially if the weather is not great and people don’t spill into the street while they enjoy their aperitif. It is a great place to watch locals, hear the typical Spanish bar noise, and get a sense of what bar culture in Spain is like.

Most of what makes Bar Madrid so good is very difficult to explain in writing, or even to tell someone else. You have to experience it, to live it in person. I highly recommend Leon as a destination in Spain and Bar Madrid is a great place to see the real bar culture of Spain, to people watch, and to enjoy an unbeatable ambiance, while having a great cana, corto, or vino along with a tapa.